How small businesses are fuelling digital innovation – Gerry Gualtieri

Gerry Gualtieri

In this article, Gerry Gualtieri, CEO at ClearCourse, a group of tech companies that provides software solutions to UK businesses, discusses how small businesses are fuelling digital innovation.

It’s a truly exciting time to be a small technology business in the UK.

When we talk about tech, there’s a tendency to think in ‘Big Tech’ terms, overlooking the impact that smaller companies have on our everyday lives. Despite the challenges that businesses have faced over the last two years, inward VC investment into the UK tech sector has continued to catch up with the likes of China, hitting a record high of $15bn in 2020.

The UK government is playing a part, too, in supporting smaller businesses as they adapt to the digital environment: only last month, it introduced small but crucial loans for database software, offering solutions that were previously only within budget for the biggest market players.

It’s clear that there’s a conversation to be had about the technology that businesses need today. Not the metaverse or the compelling world of NFTs, but the software less visibly shaping our future economy. For small and medium enterprises (SMEs) driven to adapt to adverse operating conditions over recent years, investment in tech has fast become a core ingredient for exciting upgrades, mission-critical innovation and fundamentally, survival. But which technologies suit these businesses best, and equally importantly, are the solutions in question within their reach?

Front of mind

Technology remains front of mind for all business leaders, with the pandemic sparking an even greater demand. It’s helping smaller businesses across the country recover from COVID and press on with achieving their ambitious goals. But for tech vendors, the surge of interest in digital upgrades presents an opportunity to solve real problems. Fuelled by a pipeline of innovation and a steady stream of growth, tech for SMEs has attracted a significant amount of investment.

Small businesses account for 99.2% of all businesses in the UK. With software shaping up to be the great differentiator, it’s no wonder that three-quarters of these businesses depended on innovative solutions to power through the great pandemic over the past year. The crucial question remains, however, whether technology providers are doing enough to cater to these companies, customising their offerings for those businesses that contribute significantly to local economies.

One size doesn’t fit all

No doubt pandemic-related hardships and remote conditions have emphasised the need for a deeper integration of digital technology among SMEs. But if small or medium business owners need to free their time from the day-to-day running of a business, which demands huge manual effort, they need the right technology solution, which is easier said than done.

Every business has its nuances, and it’s critical for technology partners and providers to cater to these. This is impossible if the provider in question isn’t abreast of the industry in which their customer operates. Understanding a client’s business should be a foremost priority for any technology vendor, and it’s something SME businesses should look for at the very outset of their partnerships. As customers, they should remain a key contributor to the continued development of any solution they use.

As an example, food is one of several sectors with emerging priorities and challenges that render most existing, generic electronic point of sale (EPoS) solutions of little or no use. Uniform solutions, in this instance, don’t address the specific nuances of food retail. In a sector where regulation is inevitable and ever-changing, independent food retailers should be looking for EPoS systems that are tailored to the food and beverage sector.

Another compelling case is that of payments: most terminals in the UK have little to no interaction with businesses’ EPoS systems, leaving SMEs to, once again, settle for one-size-fits-all solutions. The majority of existing payments solutions are of high quality: stable, secure, robust. But if they’re unable to communicate with existing systems and software, businesses will always be draining time by manually reconciling their data between platforms.

Seeking to resolve this fragmentation, it’s great to see forward-thinking software vendors gradually latching onto a new principle: keeping the merchants they serve front of mind in their design process, and even involving them directly in the development of payments infrastructure. By incorporating their customers’ operational insights and perspectives from the very beginning, technology companies will free up SMEs to focus on what truly matters overall: their business.

In a past age, smaller brands mashing together existing software with their own systems was accepted as standard practice, while interoperable solutions remained the typical preserve of top-tier, large-scale high street retailers. It is clear why such issues present major shortcomings for ambitious SMEs, for whom understanding cash flow and profitability in real-time is a game-changer. With tech vendors gradually recognising old barriers to SMEs’ potential, we should hope to see more payments models shaped with smaller merchants in mind.

Personalised connections

The traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to software used to push SMEs to choose between shoehorning their existing systems and business priorities to fit the tools available, lest they be ‘left behind’, operating with legacy systems at great cost.

While investment into SME tech grows, today’s business owners are enjoying the benefits of greater access to the right technology that eases operational pressures, helps to manage cashflow and keeps a handle on their stock levels – and above all, enables lasting connections with customers. If smart software underpins their survival and success, SMEs deserve the best solutions that our industry can provide.

As service and technology providers, we need to think about how to develop businesses’ capabilities with complementary solutions that are easy to adopt, integrate and deploy, all while adding value. Our duty, going forwards, is clear: to ensure these tools are available and accessible on the market, while supporting small, determined teams as an important evolution unfolds.

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